11 Money-Saving European Travel Tips
Europe. Cheap. Could there be a more tantalizing combination of words?
As every Europhile knows, summer is a magical time to explore The Continent. But since it’s also high season, when rates for travel and accommodation skyrocket, it hasn’t typically been the best time to find wallet-friendly deals. This year, however, is different. Not only have visitors to Europe become savvier than ever about scouting out budget strategies, but there are plenty of new affordable travel options to accommodate them.
For starters, flights to Europe are now far more numerous—and thus more competitively priced—than in previous years. The EU-US Open Skies air-transport agreement, which became effective in March 2008, allowed for greatly increased air traffic to European hubs—and in the coming months, U.S. and international carriers will add even more new European routes to their offerings. (U.S. Airways, for instance, will start running flights between Charlotte, North Carolina and Paris this spring; Delta plans a summertime launch of its new Detroit-Rome route.)
Travel within Europe is also increasingly reasonable. Discount European airlines, like RyanAir and EasyJet, are unveiling dozens of new inter-city flight routes, many of them priced outrageously low (how does a $40 one-way ticket between Berlin and Dubrovnik sound?). Meanwhile, train service is expanding across the Continent, with newly introduced routes and high-speed coaches (especially in Spain and Italy), along with fabulous offerings like The Danube Express, a restored 1950’s commuter-rail train that runs all-inclusive sightseeing trips in 10 different countries. And travelers who prefer to do their own driving can take advantage of a new way to save this year, too: Hertz’s 369 rental program, which now allows customers in nine European countries to rent cars by the hour, rather than by the day.
There are even a few new tricks to finding budget-conscious peak-season European lodgings. Renting a cost-effective villa is a vaunted strategy for European travelers, of course. But those who don’t mind chain properties (small, design-minded ones, that is) can check into several new, affordable options, like the InterContinental Group’s Hotel Indigo (with new locations in the U.K.), the Amsterdam-based CitizenM, and the Spain-based Room Mate. There are also great deals to be had at big chain hotels that are geared toward business travelers—provided you book on the weekends, when rates can dip by 25 to 50 percent.
With all these choices for traveling affordably in Europe, the only trouble you may have is choosing where to go first (and second, and third). But that’s the good kind of trouble, isn’t it?
Book New Plane Routes
Before last year’s Open Skies agreement, an air-transport pact that cleared the way for more flights between the United States and Europe, American Airlines (aa.com) and United Airlines (united.com) were the only domestic carriers flying into London Heathrow from the U.S. Today, Continental (continental.com), Delta (delta.com), Northwest (nwa.com), and US Airways (usairways.com) all have daily flights into Heathrow. In addition, a few international airlines have established links from European hubs other than their own to the U.S.; Air France (airfrance.com) will begin a Heathrow-to-JFK flight this summer. And thanks to these additional routes, analysts expect prices to become more competitive. Smaller airports are also benefiting from the treaty. Next month, US Airways will be adding three routes: from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Paris, and from Philadelphia to Oslo and Birmingham, England. In June, Delta is planning to introduce flights from Pittsburgh to Paris and Detroit to Rome.
Fly With Low-Cost Airlines
As travelers become more budget-conscious, discount European carriers are expanding their networks to meet the demand. Ryanair (ryanair.com) is leading the way with 179 new routes in 2009, including flights from Edinburgh to Malta and Oslo to Bologna. Rival EasyJet (easyjet.com) plans to add at least 30 new itineraries this year—among them London Gatwick to Copenhagen and Berlin to Dubrovnik. We found summer fares for the new Berlin-to-Dubrovnik flight for as low as $40 one-way, and the deals should continue through the fall.
Check Out New, Affordable Airlines
This past February, Lufthansa launched Lufthansa Italia (lufthansa.com). The carrier offers nonstop connections between Milan Malpensa and eight European destinations, including Barcelona and Madrid, making travel between Italy and neighboring countries more accessible after Alitalia reduced its service from Malpensa last year. At press time, we found a round-trip ticket from Milan to Barcelona for $112.
Take the Cheap (and Fast) Train
Europe’s high-speed rail network continues to grow—a boon for travelers looking for convenience and affordability. Spain is at the forefront, with 900 miles of track and plans for 5,300 more by 2020. The latest Renfe (renfe.es) route: a Madrid-to-Barcelona service that launched last winter, departing 17 to 26 times a day and cutting travel time from six hours to two and a half. The first high-speed connection between Figueres, Spain, and Perpignan, France, as well as the first leg of one between Madrid and Lisbon, is scheduled to begin in 2010. Meanwhile, Italy’s Trenitalia (trenitalia.it) recently introduced service between Milan and Naples, shortening the journey from eight and a half hours to four. To buy tickets, visit raileurope.com, where we found one-way fares from Madrid to Barcelona for $169, and from Milan to Naples for $122.
Rent a Car by the Hour
The biggest news in European car rentals: short-term hires. Last summer, Hertz introduced Hertz 369 (800/654-3001; hertz.com; from $45 per hour, including taxes and insurance), a program that allows travelers in Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, and the U.K. to rent cars in three-, six-, and nine-hour increments—perfect for a jaunt to the countryside, travel between neighboring cities, or a one-way commute to the airport. This past winter, the company also launched a car-sharing program, Connect by Hertz (877/654-4400; connectbyhertz.com), with a fleet of Mini Coopers and Ford Fiestas. Members, who pay a $50 annual fee, can pick up vehicles at various convenient points in central London and Paris, starting at $5.12 per hour. (Rates include fuel, insurance, and roadside assistance.)
Rent Diesel Cars
Renting a diesel car, such as the Volkswagen Golf or the Opel Astra, will ease the pain of high fuel prices by 4 to 8 percent. Though gas rates have dropped twofold in the United States since last July, in Europe they remain as steep as $6.40 per gallon, the most expensive being found in the Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark. (The areas with the best prices include Eastern Europe, Great Britain, and Spain.)
Try Affordable Boutique Hotels
Travelers looking for value and style are in luck: new affordable, design-conscious properties are opening up across Europe. Hotel Indigo, InterContinental Hotel Group’s boutique brand, now has an outpost in London, its first location outside North America, with plans for three more hotels in the city by 2012. The 64-room Hotel Indigo London Paddington (doubles from $185) is long on personality and perks—plasma TV’s, oversize beds, and lobby décor that changes seasonally. This month, CitizenM, which has a branch at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, expands into downtown with its second property, CitizenM Amsterdam City (doubles from $88). The rooms are small yet still manage to accommodate king-size beds, flat-screen TV’s, and wall-to-wall windows. A CitizenM hotel is due to open in Glasgow later this year. Also look for Spain’s hip Room Mate (doubles from $77) chain, set to open outposts in Barcelona, Valencia, and Madrid.
Snag Weekend Rates at Business Hotels
If you’ve never considered staying at a business-brand hotel, think again. Because corporate travelers make up the majority of their clientele, these properties often reduce rates on weekends to attract leisure travelers. Along with the well-established chains in America, most European cities have equivalents with similar offerings. At press time, weekend prices at London’s Swissôtel the Howard were 20 percent off the standard rate, at $225, while rooms at the Hilton London Kensington Olympia dipped about 50 percent to $84 per night. This month, weekend prices at Norway and Denmark’s Scandic Hotels (46-8/5175-1720; scandichotels.com) start at $102 per night, double, a discount of 20 to 25 percent. Newer properties are also a good bet since they tend to have low opening rates: this February, the renovated Gran Meliá Colón, in Seville, Spain, was advertising rooms for $171 per night on Travelzoo (travelzoo.com)—almost 50 percent off standard rates.
Research Low-Cost Villas
European villas have always offered value, especially if you’re traveling with a group. Here, four companies that promise exceptional savings this year.
- Carolyn Grote, founder of Ville et Village, a boutique agency with some 250 properties throughout France and Italy, believes Provence offers the best bang for your buck in France, since the area has an abundance of villas. You can score the four-bedroom La Ferme, outside St.-Rémy, for $3,488 a week in July (an 8 percent discount compared with last year’s rates).
- Spain-Select has a “Great Deals” section on its website for properties that typically cost no more than $130 per person per night during high season. At press time, we found Torre Blanca, a three-bedroom seaside villa on the Andalusian coast, for $1,615 per week (six-person maximum).
- California-based RentVillas has more than 1,600 properties in eight European countries, and connects you with previous renters for unbiased opinions. Among its best bets this season: the five-bedroom Villa Bodamia ($1,294 per week), in Islamlar, Turkey, with views of the Mediterranean.
- The two-year-old Dream & Charme, in Milan, rents luxury villas throughout Italy. While its “Dream” properties tend to be pricey, the “Charme” options are softer on the wallet, especially in areas such as Umbria and Puglia, which generally go for 20 to 30 percent less than their Tuscan counterparts. Case in point: the five-bedroom, five-bathroom Villa 0186, in the Umbrian countryside, which rents for $4,265 per week—or just $121 a night per bedroom.
Try an All-Inclusive Train
Central and Eastern Europe have a new, glamorous way to explore the cities and the countryside. The Danube Express, a restored 1950’s commuter-rail train that includes 12 sleeping cars filled with restored wood paneling and original furniture, launched last September with routes in 10 countries. For $3,828 per person, the 10-day Bosphorus Journey takes you from London to Istanbul. It includes two nights aboard the Danube Express with meals and drinks, seven nights at hotels in Budapest and Istanbul, plus sightseeing tours, dinners, and a round-trip flight from London to Budapest.
Find Business-Class Sales
The business-class fare wars that began last fall continue apace in 2009. At press time, Virgin Atlantic (virginatlantic.com) was offering a $2,122 round-trip ticket between New York and London, its lowest business-class rate of the year. British Airways (ba.com) slashed its fares on the same route by 84 percent, to $1,800 round-trip. And with European carriers projected to lose more than $1 billion this year, the sales are expected to continue through the fall. The launch of new business-class–only flights has helped to keep prices down, which may come as a surprise given the economic climate. Open Skies (flyopenskies.com)—the business- and premium-class airline that British Airways debuted last year with daily service from JFK to Paris Orly and Amsterdam—is about to have company. Starting this autumn, British Airways will also introduce business-class service between JFK and London City Airport 10 times a week. And Lufthansa (lufthansa.com) is launching a similar 44-seat flight between JFK and Munich in May.